Peggy Lee


[Pianist] Lou Levy Takes You Behind the Scenes with Ella and Peggy

by Lou Levy

I don’t know of two more generous and understanding singers to work for than Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee. Peggy presents more of a thoroughly planned act, usually doing the same show during an entire engagement. Ella’s concert or nightclub performance is carefully planned, but she makes certain changes while on stage.

Working with Ella is more of a jazz job. There’s more room for variations. I guess the best way to describe it would be to say it’s like working with a horn player. Peggy creates a very strong feeling, but it’s not strictly because of the jazz phrasing she brings to her singing, but because of the way she projects the lyrics and creates a mood as she sings. Ella sings with less dramatic qualities overall. Despite the fact that Peggy works strictly non-jazz nightclubs, she still maintains a jazz feeling in her singing.

The customers come to see Peggy thinking of her as a pop singer, but then discover how she is in reality a jazz artist as well. On the other hand, Ella is known as a jazz singer, but she has become part of the pop music world to the public through her songbook albums. Harmonically they’re both perfect, with never any time or pitch problems. They both have the talent of a complete musician, being able to handle all types of songs at any given tempo.

They both read music well because of their common Big Band background. This kind of training probably helped them in the ease with which they can sight-read a song at first glance. When rehearsing with Peggy, she pre-sets everything including all the piano parts. Ella, however, lets the accompanist set the introduction, the ending and certain interludes. And while Ella uses more material on stage, she takes less time to rehearse with, due to the fact that Peggy does basically one set show while working in a club.

Of course, Ella has always been a true jazz singer, since her beginnings with Chick Webb. Peggy started in the jazz field with Benny Goodman, but she’s worked somewhat away from it. Ella enjoys working with jazz musicians in their groove – trading fours, improvising, joining in on ensembles with the group, and singing harmony parts just as the horns do. The experience of working with great jazz musicians like Oscar Peterson, Lester Young, Ray Brown, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker has really helped define her singing style.

Her years in jazz have made her ear so attuned to a complete jazz concept that hers is even better than that of the normal jazz musicians. One day at her house, while listening to the tape of “Take the A Train” from the album Ella in Hollywood, Ella began singing a second harmony part. She said that someday she wanted to record four different harmony parts in a song and have them dubbed one on top of the other.

Peggy hasn’t realy exploited the jazz field lately. She enjoys using the arrangings of jazz composers – people like Bill Holman, one of my own favorite arrangers, as well as charts by Marty Paich, Al Cohn and Quincy Jones. I really think she would enjoy working more in a jazz groove, like doing a jazz concert tour of major colleges and cities. We did a week of such concerts in San Francisco a couple of years ago which was a big success.

This is the only field of singing in which she hasn’t sustained a real impact. She certainly has all the vocal equipment to do so. In Peggy’s singing you can hear the Billie Holiday influence, even when not doing a tribute medley. Ella outwardly is not influenced by any particular jazz singer, but I know she greatly admired Billie’s singing.

While working nightclub engagements with them, I noticed that Ella occasionally might hit the audience harder earlier with a fast-tempoed tune. On the other hand, Peggy’s show gathers momentum, and received the same tremendous impact. It’s been a sincere pleasure to work with both of them from an artistic as well as personal standpoint.